Day 9-15: Gorilla trekking across Uganda

The second week of my African adventure has flown by, and I can’t believe the experiences I’ve had in the past few days and that I only have another few left. But yesterday I actually came face to face with an endangered mountain gorilla! Here’s what I’ve been up to since completing the East African Playgrounds charity project at Huda school in Uganda.

Day 9, Friday 7 August

Very early in the morning we left the school, which was good because there weren’t many children around to make us upset. The builders of course gave us a good send off, with them saying “bye Shakira mulalu” (crazy) and Salime carrying me onto the bus. Our rosa (larger bus) left for the campsite we’d stayed at on the first night, us waving goodbye and excited for the rest day. I’ll miss the kids but certainly not the long drop – and I’ve appreciated having a proper shower at Day 9last!

Later on in the morning I headed off with some of the group for an hour of quad biking, which was so much fun once I finally figured out how to use the gears and stopped mowing down all the plants… It was dusty though, so I really needed the face cover to protect me! In the afternoon another group of us went on a tour to the source of the Nile. For some reason we thought it was a booze cruise, but instead we were on kayaks and hilariously unprepared for it. Undeterred we continued with the tour anyway and ended up watching the sun set with a gin and tonic at the exact location of the source of the Nile. It was the perfect set up for a Friday night of drinks with people from both Warwick groups.

Day 10, Saturday 8 August

Day 10Well, I had to have a bad day at some point during the trip and this was it. We had a 12-hour drive to west Uganda, right by the border of Rwanda, for the start of the gorilla trek and I basically threw up the entire way and couldn’t even keep a bottle of water down. Yuck. We did stop off at the equator though which was pretty interesting albeit slightly anti-climatic: you can stand exactly on the line where the equator is, but that’s about it. We reached Edirisa camp by Lake Bunyonyi before dinner and I headed straight to bed, desperately hoping I’d feel better for the first day of trekking on Sunday.

Day 11, Sunday 9 August

Luckily I woke up to only a slightly dodgy stomach and no vomiting, so I decided I was well enough to trek the first day. And I’m so glad that I did, because it was one of the best days I’ve had so far on the trip. We started off by canoeing across Lake Bunyonyi, the first of the three lakes we’ll be encountering. Its name means “the place of many little birds” and contains 29 islands, one of which is called Akampene (Punishment Island) and was used to banish unmarried pregnant women, and another called Bwama which used to house a leprosy hospital. We then started our first section of hiking, stopping off at a traditional tavern in the morning sun to try a local brew (which was disgusting and had the texture of Weetabix). As we headed up the mountain the locals were very friendly, one of them even asking if I’d be his wife – I learned my lesson to pretend I had a husband in future to make life easier!Day 11

When we reached the top of our first section, the views were absolutely incredible. I hated having to look at the ground to see where I was hiking as I had to tear my eyes away from the amazing scenery: photos just did not do it justice. Our second stop was at the village healer’s home, and he told us about natural remedies and treatments, which was something I’d never taken seriously before (but now, I think I might do a little more!). We then headed to a rastafarian’s lodgings so he could tell us a little more about his people and how he’s helping modernise the community – no, he’s not a druggie – and he gave us some delicious fruit salad. Finally for lunch we arrived at Anna the craft maker’s, and we each made a small bracelet out of papyrus. Admittedly I was rubbish and needed a lot of help, but I worked it out in the end.

As late afternoon approached, we reached the canoes which were to take us over to Tom’s Island, one of the 29 in Lake Bunyonyi. We had to wave goodbye to the random dog which had followed us all day, and meet the family who had occupied this small island for decades (and yes, all of the sons were called Tom). After a quick tour of the island we had a dip in the lake and a wash – certainly one of the more interesting showers I’ve had here – and then settled down to a dinner of fresh crayfish from the lake, which was delicious. The evening was spent listening to local myths and legends by the burning embers of the campfire, and we were even treated to a couple of songs. We all ended up joining in with their traditional stomping dance, too!

Day 12, Monday 10 August

The second and toughest day of the trek was upon us. We left Tom’s Island after watching the sun rise and started the long journey towards Lake Mutanda, which began with a horrible steep slope upward in the strong morning sunshine. However, as we got higher and further towards the forest, the views became absolutely incredible and so worth the hard work. A few hours and a few bottles of water (and moans) later, we entered the African forest and I genuinely felt like Lara Croft – I Day 12could barely see through the undergrowth and was hacking my way through bushes and sloshing through marshes. The guide even spotted a chameleon!

Upon finally leaving the forest after a couple of hours we were greeted by the glorious, if somewhat hazy, view of the volcano backdrop over Lake Kayumbu. That was our motivation to reach the bottom of the lake, where we would be staying at a local church. Along the way entire villages greeted us – clearly visiting Muzungu were a huge occasion – and the children went insane, even more so than at Huda school. They ran behind us for miles singing songs, and one group even got a goat to chase us down the road. It kept us amused along the 25-30 km journey at least. When we arrived at the church as the sun fell, we celebrated Bambi’s 21st birthday with a cake and listened to obscure Ugandan stories and riddles by the light of the campfire.

Day 13, Tuesday 11 August

The third day of the trek led us to our third lake: Lake Mutanda, just past the border of Rwanda. At one point we were only a half hour walk away from crossing the border! The day was actually much easier than the one before, as although there was about an hour of difficult hiking the mountains levelled out slightly and we walked through a town, which was the most civilisation I’d seen in a few days. There was then an hour and a half of walking across boiling hot tarmac and it really burntDay 13 my feet. Luckily we stopped off at a lovely place called the Coffee Pot for lunch and it was great to have a break from the constant shouts of “Muzungu” for once, which I had heard hundreds of times over the past few days.

The afternoon was again fairly flat and allowed us to have a chat while we were walking. As evening fell we got a speedboat across the lake to Mutanda Island, our own private island while the owner was away. The place was absolutely breath taking – the toilet and shower even had their own views across the lake – and we had a buffet by the campfire before heading to bed early, ready to brave the final day of trekking.

Day 14, Wednesday 12 August

Finally it was the last day of trekking before we could meet the gorillas! After a big breakfast and a bit of a lay-in (that Day 14means until 7.30am rather than 6.30am, yay) we headed off on a slightly more difficult day, with a really hard climb for about an hour in the morning. However, we reached a beautiful and clearly very expensive hotel for lunch, where we played card games and washed our hands over and over again in some very white sinks which seemed to really show up the dirt…

After an afternoon of fairly flat walking, which involved chasing a lot of animals and chewing on sugar cane, we entered the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and it was the rainforest that anyone could ever dream of. The forest we walked through on the second day was nothing like it, as it looked more like an overgrown British forest. But Bwindi is literally a jungle – leaves bigger than your face, bright greens, reds and yellows, and wildlife everywhere. We reached Nshongi Camp, which is honestly stunning and makes you truly feel like you’re having a real African experience, with a wooden lodge to eat in but basic tents in a clearing. What I did notice though was how much louder the insects were (and some of us even found crickets in our tents…). Getting to sleep was tough, especially knowing that a 5.30am start followed, but it was worth it to meet the gorillas at last.

Day 15, Thursday 13 August

Getting up was actually fairly easy, with a day of gorillas ahead and the thrill of waking up in an actual jungle (!). After a forced early breakfast we were given walking sticks with gorillas carved into the top and we headed towards the gorilla gate in Bwindi jungle for our briefing. We were told how to treat the gorillas – wait for them to approach you rather than you approach them, and don’t be scared to look them in the eye unless they’re charging… Suddenly it all became real. I was about to see one of 700 remaining mountain gorillas in their wild habitat!

As we set off, the guide gave us lots of information about the mountain gorillas and the Ugandan Wildlife Authority who monitor the permits. The gorilla groups are tracked by the Authority for around three years before humans are allowed near them (a process called habituation) and only a maximum of eight people for one hour a day can see them, to prevent domestication. The money generated from our permits and tourism not only goes towards their conservation and helps track their health, but a certain percentage also goes towards local communities.Day 15

When the gorillas were finally located, it was time for us to start hacking our way through the jungle, with our guide in the lead wielding a machete. If I felt like Lara Croft the other day, then today was out of this world. After successfully navigating our way through swamps, ant nests and quicksand with only a few stumbles, we made it to our gorilla group at lunchtime. Looking back on it feels a bit surreal – I got some amazing photos but genuinely the giant animals look like soft toys to me now! They were bigger than I thought they would be and much more human. The hour we spent with them made me recognise their human habits, for example how they eat, how if they stand up on their hind legs they move just like us, and one even fell out of a tree. More specifically their ears were something I really noticed, as they look exactly like ours. We saw the majestic, huge silverback and a few other adults, and most of the time they ignored us as they continued to eat the 25-30kg of foliage they require a day to survive. A particularly special moment was when I turned round and a gorilla was walking through the undergrowth straight towards me, and we both stopped and looked straight at one another – I honestly felt like some kind of understanding registered in its eyes. I was absolutely awed.

The rest of the afternoon was something like a dream. We wrestled our way out of the jungle into the sun, were presented with gorilla trekking certificates and bought “Muzungu in the mist” t-shirts, and bid a fond farewell to Nshongi. The beginning of our journey back to East Uganda took us to an Edirisa hostel in Kabale, which had hot showers, lights and even WiFi! It was an incredible day.

So what’s next? It’s safari time, of course! I can’t wait to share my adventures of this weekend with you in my next blog post, so do keep an eye out. I should be able to tell you about the final opening day of the playground at Huda school, too!

Read my other blog posts about the trip here and here.

Published by Sian Elvin

Journalist and editor from the UK.

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